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Thursday, December 10, 2015

GAO Report Sheds New Light on FAA NextGen Funding

Woodrow Bellamy III 

[Avionics Today 12-10-2015] The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a new report analyzing regulatory control of funding for foundational and progressive initiatives within the FAA's NextGen airspace modernization program. According to the report, lawmakers have several key issues to consider upon confirming the FAA's next Reauthorization bill.
Alaska Airlines aircraft taking off at Seattle Tacoma International Airport, where NextGen flight procedures are being used. Photo: Seattle Tacoma International Airport.
Requested by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, GAO's latest FAA study was released as the FAA continues operating under temporary funding legislation that expires March 31, 2016. Specifically, the committee requested an investigation by GAO on the impact of federal budget authorizations and appropriations uncertainty on FAA proceedings and programs. Through interviews with senior FAA officials and analysis of the protracted reauthorization process the FAA has been operating under since 2007, GAO provided information about how past budget uncertainty has affected FAA's operations and NextGen implementation. The agency also analyzed how FAA is addressing budget uncertainty and potential alternative funding options for FAA, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of those options. 
Key findings in the report pointed to the fact that the FAA currently has the majority of critical NextGen programs on schedule. However, past budget uncertainty has delayed final investment decisions for certain initiatives such as Segment 1, Phase 2 of the En Route Full Services of Data Communications (Data Comm). That decision, an investment, which would extend the current Departure Clearance (DCL) initial phase of Data Comm capabilities to high altitude airspace, has been delayed until late 2016 as a result of the 2013 government shut down. 
"Sequestration delayed NextGen improvements, originally scheduled for 2013, to optimize the use of airspace at two of five metroplexes, major population centers that include several major commercial and general aviation airports in close proximity. According to FAA officials, while the additional incremental costs associated with budget uncertainty are difficult to determine, past budget uncertainty has delayed the benefits of NextGen, creating a lack of confidence among industry partners," writes Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation issues, in a letter to lawmakers accompanying the new study.
FAA officials also told GAO that continued budget instability caused them to postpone final investment decisions for the Common Support System Weather (CSS-Wx) and NextGen Weather Processor (NWP) programs. According to the FAA's NextGen program breakdown, CSS-Wx provides weather data, products and imagery using standards based weather dissemination via the FAA's System Wide Information Management (SWIM) concept. GAO's study indicates that these delays could cost "millions of dollars more than anticipated because future labor and other costs could be much greater."
Another finding within the study is that past budget uncertainty caused the FAA to divide investments for Air Traffic Control (ATC) technology supporting Performance Based Navigation (PBN) into smaller pieces. This has limited the implementation of some PBN capabilities within selected sites throughout the National Airspace System (NAS), leading to the full benefits of PBN not yet being realized. 
The study does not provide specific policy recommendations for the FAA, however it does note that there are actions being taken by the agency, and options have been proposed by lawmakers and industry stakeholders to provide more stable funding for the agency. 
First, the FAA currently does not have broad authority to transfer funds between its four primary budget accounts, which include operations, facilities and equipment, research and engineering and grants for airports. FAA officials have requested broader transfer authority as part of its fiscal year 2016 budget request to address this problem and mitigate the ongoing effects of sequestration.
Second, the study found advantages and disadvantages to restructuring the FAA's Air Traffic Organization (ATO) into a separate entity with a structure more reflective of private Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) organizations based in Europe and Canada. The restructuring has been proposed as an option by both Airlines for America (A4A) and Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The advantages, according to GAO are that the user charges that would be established to fund a newly structured ATO would encourage more efficient use of the air traffic system and also allow for more budget certainty for NextGen investment decisions. The disadvantages are that in times of economic downturns or unforeseen events, revenues will fall.
The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) has heavily opposed this proposal, indicating that it would lead to a significant reduction in access to airspace for business aircraft operators. 
“This GAO report further highlights the need for Congress to take a comprehensive look at reforming the FAA, after decades of budget uncertainty and inability to meet its critical deadlines. It’s clear that we need to come together to find a new path forward that ensures that Americans can travel our skies safely and more efficiently and that U.S. aviation is globally competitive well into the future," Shuster said. 

The transportation committee's chairman has already indicated that a major reformation to the FAA's agency structure will be a part of his proposal for the next FAA Reauthorization.   

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